Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

06 MAY, 2013

Why War: Einstein and Freud’s Little-Known Correspondence on Violence, Peace, and Human Nature

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“Every man has a right over his own life and war destroys lives that were full of promise.”

Despite his enormous contributions to science, Albert Einstein was no reclusive genius, his ever-eager conversations and correspondence engaging such diverse partners as the Indian philosopher Tagore and a young South African girl who wanted to be a scientist. In 1931, the Institute for Intellectual Cooperation invited the renowned physicist to a cross-disciplinary exchange of ideas about politics and peace with a thinker of his choosing. He selected Sigmund Freud, born on May 6, 1856, whom he had met briefly in 1927 and whose work, despite being skeptical of psychoanalysis, the legendary physicist had come to admire. A series of letters followed, discussing the abstract generalities of human nature and the potential concrete steps for reducing violence in the world. In a twist of irony, the correspondence was only published in 1933 — after Hitler, who would eventually banish both Einstein and Freud into exile, rose to power — in a slim limited-edition pamphlet titled Why War?. Only 2,000 copies of the English translation were printed, most of which were lost during the war. But the gist of the correspondence, which remains surprisingly little-known, is preserved in the 1960 volume Einstein on Peace (public library), featuring a foreword by none other than Bertrand Russell.

In a letter dated April 29, 1931, Einstein laments to Freud:

I greatly admire your passion to ascertain the truth–a passion that has come to dominate all else in your thinking. You have shown with irresistible lucidity how inseparably the aggressive and destructive instincts are bound up in the human psyche with those of love and the lust for life. At the same time, your convincing arguments make manifest your deep devotion to the great goal of the internal and external liberation of man from the evils of war. This was the profound hope of all those who have been revered as moral and spiritual leaders beyond the limits of their own time and country, from Jesus to Goethe and Kant. Is it not significant that such men have been universally recognized as leaders, even though their desire to affect the course of human affairs was quite ineffective?

I am convinced that almost all great men who, because of their accomplishments, are recognized as leaders even of small groups share the same ideals. But they have little influence on the course of political events. It would almost appear that the very domain of human activity most crucial to the fate of nations is inescapably in the hands of wholly irresponsible political rulers.

Political leaders or governments owe their power either to the use of force or to their election by the masses. They cannot be regarded as representative of the superior moral or intellectual elements in a nation. In our time, the intellectual elite does not exercise any direct influence on the history of the world; the very fact of its division into many factions makes it impossible for its members to co-operate in the solution of today’s problems.

He goes on to argue that the only positive way forward is through the establishment of “a free association of men whose previous work and achievements offer a guarantee of their ability and integrity,” envisioning the power of such a network decades before social media empowered a similar groundswell:

Such a group of international scope, whose members would have to keep contact with each other through constant interchange of opinions, might gain a significant and wholesome moral influence on the solution of political problems if its own attitudes, backed by the signatures of its concurring members, were made public through the press. Such an association would, of course, suffer from all the defects that have so often led to degeneration in learned societies; the danger that such a degeneration may develop is, unfortunately, ever present in view of the imperfections of human nature. However, and despite those dangers, should we not make at least an attempt to form such an association in spite of all dangers? It seems to me nothing less than an imperative duty!

[…]

I offer these suggestions to you, rather than to anyone else in the world, because your sense of reality is less clouded by wishful thinking than is the case with other people and since you combine the qualities of critical judgment, earnestness and responsibility.

The following summer, Einstein officially invites Freud to participate in the Institute for Intellectual Cooperation exchange, presenting the brief:

This is the problem: Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war? It is common knowledge that, with the advance of modern science, this issue has come to mean a matter of life and death for Civilization as we know it; nevertheless, for all the zeal displayed, every attempt at its solution has ended in a lamentable breakdown.

He explains why he has sought out Freud:

[T]hose whose duty it is to tackle the problem professionally and practically are growing only too aware of their impotence to deal with it, and have now a very lively desire to learn the views of men who, absorbed in the pursuit of science, can see world problems in the perspective distance lends. As for me, the normal objective of my thought affords no insight into the dark places of human will and feeling. Thus, in the inquiry now proposed, I can do little more than to seek to clarify the question at issue and, clearing the ground of the more obvious solutions, enable you to bring the light of your far-reaching knowledge of man’s instinctive life to bear upon the problem. There are certain psychological obstacles whose existence a layman in the mental sciences may dimly surmise, but whose interrelations and vagaries he is incompetent to fathom; you, I am convinced, will be able to suggest educative methods, lying more or less outside the scope of politics, which will eliminate these obstacles.

Einstein, who describes himself as “one immune from nationalist bias,” puts forth his own ideas for what a solution might entail — an international legislative and judicial body, which would settle all conflicts by mutual consent — but is wary of the challenges to this concept:

This is a fact with which we have to reckon; law and might inevitably go hand in hand, and juridical decisions approach more nearly the ideal justice demanded by the community (in whose name and interests these verdicts are pronounced) insofar as the community has effective power to compel respect of its juridical ideal. But at present we are far from possessing any supranational organization competent to render verdicts of incontestable authority and enforce absolute submission to the execution of its verdicts. Thus I am led to my first axiom: The quest of international security involves the unconditional surrender by every nation, in a certain measure, of its liberty of action — its sovereignty that is to say – -and it is clear beyond all doubt that no other road can lead to such security.

Long before today’s heated debates on gun control, Einstein points to pro-gun groups as a chief culprit in hindering this legislative utopia:

The craving for power which characterizes the governing class in every nation is hostile to any limitation of the national sovereignty. This political power hunger is often supported by the activities of another group, whose aspirations are on purely mercenary, economic lines. I have especially in mind that small but determined group, active in every nation, composed of individuals who, indifferent to social considerations and restraints, regard warfare, the manufacture and sale of arms, simply as an occasion to advance their personal interests and enlarge their personal authority. … Another question follows hard upon it: How is it possible for this small clique to bend the will of the majority, who stand to lose and suffer by a state of war, to the service of their ambitions. … An obvious answer to this question would seem to be that the minority, the ruling class at present, has the schools and press, usually the Church as well, under its thumb. This enables it to organize and sway the emotions of the masses, and makes its tool of them.

Einstein then arrives at his main question for Freud:

Is it possible to control man’s mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness? Here I am thinking by no means only of the so-called uncultured masses. Experience proves that it is rather the so-called “intelligentsia” that is most apt to yield to these disastrous collective suggestions, since the intellectual has no direct contact with life in the raw but encounters it in its easiest, synthetic form — upon the printed page. … But … here we have the best occasion of discovering ways and means to render all armed conflicts impossible.

I know that in your writings we may find answers, explicit or implied, to all the issues of this urgent and absorbing problem. But it would be of the greatest service to us all were you to present the problem of world peace in the light of your most recent discoveries, for such a presentation well might blaze the trail for new and fruitful modes of action.

A few weeks later, on September 12, 1932, Einstein receives word from Leon Steinig, a League of Nations principal who facilitated the correspondence, that Freud was interested in the exchange, with the caveat that what he had to say might be too pessimistic for people’s taste but he couldn’t bring himself to sugarcoat the uncomfortable truth:

All my life I have had to tell people truths that were difficult to swallow. Now that I am old, I certainly do not want to fool them.

After Einstein assures Freud that he seeks a psychologically effective reply rather than an optimistic one, the correspondence launches into full swing and Freud writes later in September:

Dear Mr. Einstein:

When I learned of your intention to invite me to a mutual exchange of views upon a subject which not only interested you personally but seemed deserving, too, of public interest, I cordially assented. I expected you to choose a problem lying on the borderland of the knowable, as it stands today, a theme which each of us, physicist and psychologist, might approach from his own angle, to meet at last on common ground, though setting out from different premises. Thus the question which you put me — what is to be done to rid mankind of the war menace? — took me by surprise. And, next, I was dumbfounded by the thought of my (of our, I almost wrote) incompetence; for this struck me as being a matter of practical politics, the statesman’s proper study. But then I realized that you did not raise the question in your capacity of scientist or physicist, but as a lover of his fellow men… And, next, I reminded myself that I was not being called on to formulate practical proposals but, rather, to explain how this question of preventing wars strikes a psychologist.

Freud then describes his theory of the evolutionary trajectory of violence:

You begin with the relations between might and right, and this is assuredly the proper starting point for our inquiry. But, for the term might, I would substitute a tougher and more telling word: violence. In right and violence we have today an obvious antinomy. It is easy to prove that one has evolved from the other and, when we go back to origins and examine primitive conditions, the solution of the problem follows easily enough.

[…]

Conflicts of interest between man and man are resolved, in principle, by the recourse to violence. It is the same in the animal kingdom, from which man cannot claim exclusion; nevertheless, men are also prone to conflicts of opinion, touching, on occasion, the loftiest peaks of abstract thought, which seem to call for settlement by quite another method. This refinement is, however, a late development. To start with, group force was the factor which, in small communities, decided points of ownership and the question which man’s will was to prevail. Very soon physical force was implemented, then replaced, by the use of various adjuncts; he proved the victor whose weapon was the better, or handled the more skillfully. Now, for the first time, with the coming of weapons, superior brains began to oust brute force, but the object of the conflict remained the same: one party was to be constrained, by the injury done him or impairment of his strength, to retract a claim or a refusal. This end is most effectively gained when the opponent is definitely put out of action — in other words, is killed. This procedure has two advantages: the enemy cannot renew hostilities, and, secondly, his fate deters others from following his example. Moreover, the slaughter of a foe gratifies an instinctive craving. … However, another consideration may be set off against this will to kill: the possibility of using an enemy for servile tasks if his spirit be broken and his life spared. Here violence finds an outlet not in slaughter but in subjugation. Hence springs the practice of giving quarter; but the victor, having from now on to reckon with the craving for revenge that rankles in his victim, forfeits to some extent his personal security.

In tracing how civilization evolved from “brute violence, or violence backed by arms” to law, Freud argues that shared identification and a sense of community are a better bastion of order than force:

Brute force is overcome by union; the allied might of scattered units makes good its right against the isolated giant. Thus we may define “right” (i.e., law) as the might of a community. Yet it, too, is nothing else than violence, quick to attack whatever individual stands in its path, and it employs the selfsame methods, follows like ends, with but one difference: it is the communal, not individual, violence that has its way. But, for the transition from crude violence to the reign of law, a certain psychological condition must first obtain. The union of the majority must be stable and enduring. If its sole raison d’etre be the discomfiture of some overweening individual and, after his downfall, it be dissolved, it leads to nothing. Some other man, trusting to his superior power, will seek to reinstate the rule of violence, and the cycle will repeat itself unendingly. Thus the union of the people must be permanent and well organized; it must enact rules to meet the risk of possible revolts; must set up machinery insuring that its rules — the laws — are observed and that such acts of violence as the laws demand are duly carried out. This recognition of a community of interests engenders among the members of the group a sentiment of unity and fraternal solidarity which constitutes its real strength. … I have set out what seems to me the kernel of the matter: the suppression of brute force by the transfer of power to a larger combination, founded on the community of sentiments linking up its members.

But this, Freud points out, is easier in theory than in practice, since it assumes a community of equals and yet most groups have an inherent power imbalance between individuals, which results in inevitable conflict:

Thenceforward there exist within the state two factors making for legal instability, but legislative evolution, too: first, the attempts by members of the ruling class to set themselves above the law’s restrictions and, secondly, the constant struggle of the ruled to extend their rights and see each gain embodied in the code, replacing legal disabilities by equal laws for all.

From this, Freud observes, results the paradox of peace:

No single all-embracing judgment can be passed on these wars of aggrandizement. Some, like the war between the Mongols and the Turks, have led to unmitigated misery; others, however, have furthered the transition from violence to law, since they brought larger units into being, within whose limits a recourse to violence was banned and a new regime determined all disputes. Thus the Roman conquest brought that boon, the pax Romana, to the Mediterranean lands. The French kings’ lust for aggrandizement created a new France, flourishing in peace and unity. Paradoxical as its sounds, we must admit that warfare well might serve to pave the way to that unbroken peace we so desire, for it is war that brings vast empires into being, within whose frontiers all warfare is proscribed by a strong central power.

Freud brings his theory back to the present predicament, proposing that there is only one certain way of ending war — establishing, by consensus, a centralized body of control that resolves all such conflicts of interest. But that necessitates certain conditions, which at the time remained — as they do today — unmet:

For this, two things are needed: first, the creation of such a supreme court of judicature; secondly, its investment with adequate executive force. Unless this second requirement be fulfilled, the first is unavailing. Obviously the League of Nations, acting as a Supreme Court, fulfills the first condition; it does not fulfill the second. It has no force at its disposal and can only get it if the members of the new body, its constituent nations, furnish it. And, as things are, this is a forlorn hope. Still we should be taking a very shortsighted view of the League of Nations were we to ignore the fact that here is an experiment the like of which has rarely — never before, perhaps, on such a scale — been attempted in the course of history. It is an attempt to acquire the authority (in other words, coercive influence), which hitherto reposed exclusively in the possession of power, by calling into play certain idealistic attitudes of mind. … [T]here are two factors of cohesion in a community: violent compulsion and ties of sentiment (“identifications,” in technical parlance) between the members of the group. If one of these factors becomes inoperative, the other may still suffice to hold the group together.

[…]

And, in our times, we look in vain for some such unifying notion whose authority would be unquestioned. It is all too clear that the nationalistic ideas, paramount today in every country, operate in quite a contrary direction. Some there are who hold that the Bolshevist conceptions may make an end of war, but, as things are, that goal lies very far away and, perhaps, could only be attained after a spell of brutal internecine warfare. Thus it would seem that any effort to replace brute force by the might of an ideal is, under present conditions, doomed to fail. Our logic is at fault if we ignore the fact that right is founded on brute force and even today needs violence to maintain it.

Freud then sets forth the most compelling portion of his theory, which deals with the dual capacity for good and evil in human nature, and argues that these two seemingly opposing forces operate in necessary unison:

We assume that human instincts are of two kinds: those that conserve and unify, which we call “erotic” (in the meaning Plato gives to Eros in his Symposium), or else “sexual” (explicitly extending the popular connotation of “sex”); and, secondly, the instincts to destroy and kill, which we assimilate as the aggressive or destructive instincts. These are, as you perceive, the well known opposites, Love and Hate, transformed into theoretical entities; they are, perhaps, another aspect of those eternal polarities, attraction and repulsion, which fall within your province. But we must be chary of passing overhastily to the notions of good and evil. Each of these instincts is every whit as indispensable as its opposite, and all the phenomena of life derive from their activity, whether they work in concert or in opposition. It seems that an instinct of either category can operate but rarely in isolation; it is always blended (“alloyed,” as we say) with a certain dosage of its opposite, which modifies its aim or even, in certain circumstances, is a prime condition of its attainment. Thus the instinct of self-preservation is certainly of an erotic nature, but to gain its end this very instinct necessitates aggressive action. In the same way the love instinct, when directed to a specific object, calls for an admixture of the acquisitive instinct if it is to enter into effective possession of that object. It is the difficulty of isolating the two kinds of instinct in their manifestations that has so long prevented us from recognizing them. … Only exceptionally does an action follow on the stimulus of a single instinct, which is per se a blend of Eros and destructiveness. As a rule several motives of similar composition concur to bring about the act.

He relates this to the international dynamics of war:

[W]hen a nation is summoned to engage in war, a whole gamut of human motives may respond to this appeal–high and low motives, some openly avowed, others slurred over. The lust for aggression and destruction is certainly included; the innumerable cruelties of history and man’s daily life confirm its prevalence and strength. The stimulation of these destructive impulses by appeals to idealism and the erotic instinct naturally facilitate their release. Musing on the atrocities recorded on history’s page, we feel that the ideal motive has often served as a camouflage for the dust of destruction; sometimes, as with the cruelties of the Inquisition, it seems that, while the ideal motives occupied the foreground of consciousness, they drew their strength from the destructive instincts submerged in the unconscious. Both interpretations are feasible.

In a meta-deliberation aside, Freud makes a poignant and prescient point about the similitude between science and philosophy:

All this may give you the impression that our theories amount to species of mythology and a gloomy one at that! But does not every natural science lead ultimately to this — a sort of mythology? Is it otherwise today with your physical sciences?

In fact, a similar relationship exists between psychology and religious doctrine, and in their underlying common denominator Freud finds the proposed answer to Einstein’s original question, one that embodies Chaplin’s iconic speech from The Great Dictator, proclaiming that “we want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery.”:

From our “mythology” of the instincts we may easily deduce a formula for an indirect method of eliminating war. If the propensity for war be due to the destructive instinct, we have always its counter-agent, Eros, to our hand. All that produces ties of sentiment between man and man must serve us as war’s antidote. These ties are of two kinds. First, such relations as those toward a beloved object, void though they be of sexual intent. The psychoanalyst need feel no compunction in mentioning “love” in this connection; religion uses the same language: Love thy neighbor as thyself. A pious injunction, easy to enounce, but hard to carry out! The other bond of sentiment is by way of identification. All that brings out the significant resemblances between men calls into play this feeling of community, identification, whereon is founded, in large measure, the whole edifice of human society.

[…]

That men are divided into the leaders and the led is but another manifestation of their inborn and irremediable inequality. The second class constitutes the vast majority; they need a high command to make decisions for them, to which decisions they usually bow without demur. In this context we would point out that men should be at greater pains than heretofore to form a superior class of independent thinkers, unamenable to intimidation and fervent in the quest of truth, whose function it would be to guide the masses dependent on their lead. There is no need to point out how little the rule of politicians and the Church’s ban on liberty of thought encourage such a new creation. The ideal conditions would obviously be found in a community where every man subordinated his instinctive life to the dictates of reason. Nothing less than this could bring about so thorough and so durable a union between men, even if this involved the severance of mutual ties of sentiment. But surely such a hope is utterly utopian, as things are. The other indirect methods of preventing war are certainly more feasible, but entail no quick results. They conjure up an ugly picture of mills that grind so slowly that, before the flour is ready, men are dead of hunger.

Despite his generally dystopian disposition, Freud takes care to point out why Einstein’s quest is a worthwhile one nonetheless:

[E]very man has a right over his own life and war destroys lives that were full of promise; it forces the individual into situations that shame his manhood, obliging him to murder fellow men, against his will; it ravages material amenities, the fruits of human toil, and much besides. Moreover, wars, as now conducted, afford no scope for acts of heroism according to the old ideals and, given the high perfection of modern arms, war today would mean the sheer extermination of one of the combatants, if not of both. This is so true, so obvious, that we can but wonder why the conduct of war is not banned by general consent.

Given the famed adage about intuition over rationality frequently attributed, likely misattributed, to Einstein — “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” — it’s interesting that Freud points to the intellect’s suppression of instinct as the hallmark of human progress:

The cultural development of mankind (some, I know, prefer to call it civilization) has been in progress since immemorial antiquity. To this processus we owe all that is best in our composition, but also much that makes for human suffering. Its origins and causes are obscure, its issue is uncertain, but some of its characteristics are easy to perceive. It well may lead to the extinction of mankind, for it impairs the sexual function in more than one respect, and even today the uncivilized races and the backward classes of all nations are multiplying more rapidly than the cultured elements. … The psychic changes which accompany this process of cultural change are striking, and not to be gainsaid. They consist in the progressive rejection of instinctive ends and a scaling down of instinctive reactions. … On the psychological side two of the most important phenomena of culture are, firstly, a strengthening of the intellect, which tends to master our instinctive life, and, secondly, an introversion of the aggressive impulse, with all its consequent benefits and perils. Now war runs most emphatically counter to the psychic disposition imposed on us by the growth of culture; we are therefore bound to resent war, to find it utterly intolerable.

In light of today’s conflict-torn world, Freud’s conclusion echoes with aching discomfort:

How long have we to wait before the rest of men turn pacifist? Impossible to say, and yet perhaps our hope that these two factors — man’s cultural disposition and a well-founded dread of the form that future wars will take — may serve to put an end to war in the near future, is not chimerical. But by what ways or byways this will come about, we cannot guess. Meanwhile we may rest on the assurance that whatever makes for cultural development is working also against war.

On December 3, 1932, Einstein responds in a warm letter:

You have earned my gratitude and the gratitude of all men for having devoted all your strength to the search for truth and for having shown the rarest courage in professing your convictions all your life.

During the same period, Einstein was actively involved in the intellectual activism of peace. His most poignant observation — timeless and timelier than ever — was written in April of 1932, a contribution to a symposium on Europe and the Coming War,” printed in the Russian-language journal Nord-Ost:

As long as all international conflicts are not subject to arbitration and the enforcement of decisions arrived at by arbitration is not guaranteed, and as long as war production is not prohibited we may be sure that war will follow upon war. Unless our civilization achieves the moral strength to overcome this evil, it is bound to share the fate of former civilizations: decline and decay.

Einstein on Peace is timelessly fantastic in its entirety. Complement it with Henry Miller on war and the future of mankind.

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02 MAY, 2013

Gun Control Fail, 1944 Edition

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“Lady, we can’t do anything about a threat. We have to wait until he acts.” “You mean after I am shot?”

“Assault weapons will remain readily available to crazy people,” wrote Stephen King in his essay on gun control and violence, “until the powerful pro-gun forces … accept responsibility, recognizing that responsibility is not the same as culpability.” Every few months, a heartbreaking news headline announcing another mass shooting confirms King’s conviction. Recently, after nearly the entire city of Boston was under lockdown as a suspected terrorist with a handgun roamed the streets, I was reminded of a highly symbolic vignette from The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library) — the same tome that gave us Nin on the meaning of life and why emotional excess is essential to creativity — that illustrates the uncomfortable disconnect between such local, situation-specific defense measures and our general legislative approach to guns.

In June of 1944, Nin met a young sailor by the name of Harry Herkovitz, whom she describes as “dark, intense, lean” and who had written “a strange story, influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, about ravens attacking a traveler.” A protege of Nin’s longtime lover Henry Miller, Harry soon develops a fierce infatuation with her, one Nin astutely recognizes as based on a projection, a myth, and thus not real, since she knows that “where the myth fails, human love begins.” Nin observes in dismay:

I realized he did not see me as I am, that he was seeking a myth. He was calling on an Anaïs as described by Henry, which bears no resemblance to reality.

In August, she writes:

Seeking to break the friendship with Harry, I became more and more aware that he is disintegrated, chaotic, unbalanced.

Then, one day in October:

I received a telephone call from Harry Herkovitz. He said: “I am waiting downstairs with a gun. I’m going to kill you.”

“You can’t force people to love, Harry. I have been a good friend. Your girl loves you deeply, and that is rare to find.”

“I’m going to kill you.”

“I will call the police.”

I hung up. I called the police station in our neighborhood. I explained what was happening. The answer was: “Lady, we can’t do anything about a threat. We have to wait until he acts.”

“You mean after I am shot?”

“Yes, lady. People get millions of threats every day. We can’t do anything about that.”

“But you are only two blocks away. Why can’t you send someone to see if there is a young man with a gun waiting in front of 215 West Thirteenth Street? He has no right to carry a gun.”

“We can’t do that.”

I stayed home all day. In the evening, I became restless. I called up a friend Harry does not know and asked him to come and see if Harry was still at the door. He came. Harry was gone.

It’s sad — tragic, really — that seven decades later, rather than amending this attitude, we’re clutching the Second Amendment with trigger-ready talons, using it as justification for signing Nin’s experience into policy: The government is now Nin’s local police station, not even just refusing to act until someone is shot but refusing to legislate until well after a number of gruesome shootings, hoping instead that the metaphorical “Harry,” that quintessential threat of brutality enabled by arms, would simply be gone.

He won’t.

For more prescience from Nin’s diaries, see her meditations on embracing the unfamiliar, character, parenting, and personal responsibility, the fluidity of personality, anxiety in love, Paris vs. New York, and the joy of making things by hand.

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01 MAY, 2013

Brand Thinking: Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Pink, and Other Mavens on How and Why We Define Ourselves Through Stuff

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“The modern version of introspection is the sum total of all those highly individualized choices that we make about the material content of our lives.”

The art of the interview may be nearly obsolete, but a handful of its contemporary masters still hold its fort. One of them is Debbie Millman who, besides being an extraordinary artist and modern-day philosopher, is also a maven of design and branding who has spent nearly a decade interviewing some of today’s most revered designers, writers, artists, anthropologists, and various other thought leaders on her Design Matters radio show, which earned the prestigious Cooper Hewitt National Design Award in 2011. Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits (public library) is the equally fantastic follow-up to the 2007 anthology How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer, culling and synthesizing some of her finest interviews with such admired minds as Daniel Pink, Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, and Wally Olins.

Cumulatively, the wide-ranging conversations — often optimistic, but never without necessary friction and the intelligent push-back that is the hallmark of a great interview — underline the little-appreciated yet invaluable fact that the best way to illuminate a discipline is by exploring its darkest nooks and furthest fringes, those myriad cross-disciplinary touchpoints where it connects to the intricate web of interdependencies that is life. And in a culture where we continually make sense of life, ourselves, the world, and our place in it through the stuff we consume — be it the books we read or the brands we buy — these meditations on branding, design, and psychology reverberate through the deepest, and at times most uncomfortable, layers of our behavior, constructing a powerfully introspective framework for what it means to be human.

In the foreword, the inimitable Rob Walker provides his seemingly simple but enormously insightful definition of branding:

My view is that branding is the process of attaching an idea to some object, or to a service or organization.

Debbie Millman (Photograph: Nebojsa Babic)

In the introduction, Millman herself offers a brief history of branding:

The word “brand” is derived from the Old Norse word brandr, which means “to burn by fire.” … In 1876, after the United Kingdom passed the Trade Mark Registration Act, Bass Ale became the first trademarked brand in the world after submitting its now-quintessential red triangle for trademark status. The act gave businesses the ability to register and protect a brand marker so that a similar icon couldn’t be used by any other company. In addition to clinching trademark number 1, Bass’s trailblazing history includes its appearances in Édouard Manet’s 1882 masterpiece A Bar at the Folies-Bergère and Pablo Picasso’s 1912 painting Bouteille de Bass et Guitare, ostensibly providing the brand with the cultural distinction of “first product placement.” … A little more than a century later, we are living in a world with over one hundred brands of bottled water.

The interviews go on to explore why we ended up where we are, what might be wrong with a world of 100 brands of bottled water, and how we can begin to steer the future in a more hopeful direction. Here are some of the most poignant observations:

Daniel Pink

Cultural critic and author Daniel Pink, who has explored such cornerstones of culture as the science of selling ideas and the psychology of motivation, sets out to define what a “brand” is:

I would define it two ways: from the sender’s point of view and from the receiver’s point of view. I don’t want to make it overly complicated, but from the perspective of P&G or Dell or any other company, a brand might be a promise: a promise of what awaits the customer if they buy that particular product, service, or experience. From the receiver’s point of view, I think a brand is a promise … a promise of what you can expect if you use the product or service, or if you engage in the experience.

When asked whether he thinks people chose products and experiences based on that promised expectation, Pink calls on our quest for belonging:

[T]ransactions between companies and individuals — or between brands and individuals — are in their own ways conversations. A promise can be one element of a conversation. It’s what draws people in. I think that’s why the dynamic is different when you look at this conversation after someone has bought the product or the service. I think the brand can operate in a somewhat different way then. When the brand is something that an individual takes home, the brand becomes something different. The brand becomes a form of affiliation, or a form of identification—a form of status. I tend to look at it as a form of affiliation. If I open up my laptop and it has the Apple logo on it, that might make me feel marginally more associated with a group of cool, interesting people than if the computer had another logo on it. … It’s deeply tribal.

One of the most discerning observations in the book comes from Millman herself, in a riff on Pink’s words:

Brands promise a certain affiliation that we end up benefiting from — the benefits come from the association and the affiliation. Then we can use them to project how we want to be seen in the world.

But Pink sees in this a double-edged sword, one readily exploited by the marketing of planned obsolescence:

If a brand is making a promise that you’re going to feel better about yourself if you buy it, they’re making a false promise. Human beings metabolize their purchases very quickly. … This is an element of what social psychologists call “the hedonic treadmill”: If you’re always looking to validate yourself and get satisfaction from buying stuff or having a bigger house, then you’re on an endless, addictive treadmill. There’s no enduring satisfaction to this. If a brand’s only purpose is to get you on that hedonic treadmill, it might be good for business in the short run, but in the long run, you’re doomed. If you look at the components of long-term well-being, it has nothing to do with material goods. Once you’re past a certain level of material well-being, people’s long-term happiness and wellbeing is about having deep personal relationships, believing in something larger than themselves, and doing something meaningful that they enjoy.

Wally Olins (Photograph: Saffron)

When asked about the foundation of successful brands and whether market research breeds mediocrity, Wally Olins, godfather of modern branding, answers:

If you are going to create something that is truly a breakthrough, you have to rely on your intuition and your judgment. … Finding out what people feel about things that are happening today is extremely useful. Trying to get people to tell you what will work tomorrow is useless.

Seth Godin (Photograph: Brian J. Bloom)

Entrepreneurship guru Seth Godin questions the very notion of a “brand”:

I believe that “brand” is a stand-in, a euphemism, a shortcut for a whole bunch of expectations, worldview connections, experiences, and promises that a product or service makes, and these allow us to work our way through a world that has thirty thousand brands that we have to make decisions about every day.

Of the constant interplay between nostalgia and neophilia, he notes:

The reason we keep refreshing the way so many things look is because of our ceaseless race to leverage the feelings of safety and nostalgia this old thing imparts, while simultaneously injecting a sense of newness to seduce us into reengaging in the experience.

Godin stresses the difference between workaholism and all-consuming purposeful work, or what Lewis Hyde has termed work vs. creative labor, and examines the divergent underlying motives:

Workaholics are driven by fear, and I have not found myself in a position where I need to spend six or eight more hours at work because I’m trying to make everything okay.

[…]

If you’re in this frame of mind and need control, being a workaholic is a socially acceptable way to try to achieve that. Your boss thinks it’s great, and you can get a raise for doing it. In the short run, it works really well because you can — at some level — control what you’re doing and keep pushing the ball forward. You get into trouble when you get better at your work, and there’s an increase in the number of people who want to interact with you and have you do more. So this kind of working method doesn’t scale— you end up exploding.

The people who are doing great art and having an impact on the world aren’t approaching their work in this way. I recently did an interview with the architect Michael Graves. Michael Graves works a lot. He’s been in a wheelchair for more than seven years. He would be excused if he decided to scale back now after what’s been an amazing career. But, instead, he’s working on a multibillion-dollar development in Singapore, etc., etc. If you look at the way Michael works, he brings a good heart and the right attitudes to his projects at all times. He is doing important work — work that changes things. But he’s not a workaholic because he’s not doing it defensively. He’s doing it productively.

Karim Rashid

In explaining his concept of “designocracy” — the democratization of design — celebrated industrial designer Karim Rashid shares in the frequently blurred distinction between design and art, lamenting:

I’ve made couches that are very expensive, and they embarrass me now. But the reality is that I’ve learned. I know how to make people love design. The way to accomplish this is by designing democratic things. Our iconic designers are making things that are inaccessible. This is wrong. Design is not art.

[…]

An artist is somebody in a particular field who wants to make change, and doesn’t use a textbook to figure out what that’s going to be. They actually write a new textbook, and they move the profession forward. They evolve the profession. The artist is someone who seeks to do something original. That’s it. For many years, industrial design was a service industry. A company came along and told you how to make things. I came to this profession not wanting to do that. … For me, design has become a democratic art, because it allows everybody to have nice, beautiful things that make their lives more pleasurable, or more enjoyable, or more artistic, or more emotional, or more expressive, or whatever. But this “democratic art” is not art.

The tension between branding and the moral unease surrounding consumerism is a quiet yet palpable undercurrent in many of the conversations, and Rashid addresses it head-on:

I have no issues with consumption. I have issues with consuming things that we don’t need and that are badly made. I have issues with things that break down or cause harm. But there’s nothing wrong with consuming. A lot of what we consume gives us a better life. Our quality of life is better today than it’s ever been in our history. That’s a fact. Even if one-quarter of the world doesn’t have fresh drinking water, the reality is that the majority of the world is living a better life. Why is that? It’s because the things that we have in our lives make our lives better. You could argue that the original intention of design is the betterment of society.

In considering the power of design, Rashid echoes the famous Penguin design tenet that “good design is no more expensive than bad” and ponders rhetorically:

People are realizing the power of design on every level. Look, people invest money to make things, so why can’t they be beautiful? Why can’t they work? If something has to physically exist in the world, why can’t it be uncategorically better than whatever else is on the market?

Alex Bogusky (Photograph: Peter Yang)

One of the most provocative interviews, with advertising-rockstar-turned-conscious-consumption-champion Alex Bogusky, examines “the dissonance of his current work and past history.” In explaining his credo that “fear is the mortal enemy of innovation and happiness,” Bogusky admonishes that too many of us are driven by fear, but are rarely afraid of mediocrity — the real danger, which we naively fall back on as an antidote of fear. He argues:

If you’re afraid of mediocrity, you have to push past wherever mediocrity lives. A lot of people believe that there is a right and there is a wrong, and that there are creative rules. I think that trying to figure out what’s the right or wrong way to do things is a form of fear. This inhibits people, and holds them back. In creative departments, you need to create a culture where you can break lots of rules.

When asked why he left advertising after his rapid rise to stardom and status as the industry’s favorite wunderkind, Bokusky strikes at the most painful disconnect of capitalism and consumer culture:

The world was different because, at the time, we weren’t aware that we were bumping up against the physical boundaries of our ecosystem.

That’s the big change that has occurred. People have become aware of this at different times. Al Gore has known it for thirty years. For me, it’s been five. I realized that the current processes of capitalism are not going to provide a happy outcome. And yet people are beginning to redesign many aspects of business and industry. I felt that advertising was not in the center of this change — in fact, it was clearly outside where these changes were being made. I tried to take that kind of thinking to our clients, and our best thinking was not finding a very receptive audience. Actually, I shouldn’t say “our best thinking.” I felt like my best thinking wasn’t finding a receptive audience. … I felt like I was the tail trying to wag the dog.

In discussing how consumerism began as a movement to protect consumers and mutated into a signifier of overconsumption, Bogusky traces the shifting history of the word:

Words get corrupted, changed, and moved around, but the idea of consumers being empowered actually began with the term “consumerism.” when I started thinking about this, I went back and looked to see if there was a consumer’s bill of rights. I not only found that one existed, but I also discovered that John F. Kennedy wrote it in 1962 — in 1962. There was a lot going on at the time — the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, and civil rights battles. Yet, somehow, he thought this was important. He authored the Consumer Bill of Rights, and it is amazing. Its principles are dated now, but the reality is the relationship between company and consumer has evolved and can evolve further. But we need to have more democracy in the relationship — in most cases, we’re talking about putting more democracy into capitalism. It’s not a democratic system right now.

On the role of design in shifting the balance, he offers:

Design has to instruct culture, and then culture makes the change. … The power of design is that it can start to create the awareness.

Bogusky notes the often ironic dualities of consumerism and anti-consumerism:

There is a “badge” value to brands that is probably both good and bad. I was originally going to suggest it might be all bad, but I’m not really sure it is . . . But maybe it is. If you take a very Buddhist perspective on this and notice that you have this inclination to badge yourself in order to feel worthy, then that is certainly a problem. You may still be able to take a Buddhist approach and consider badging yourself only with things you’re a fan of. And that would be okay, I guess. Then again, thinking about Buddhists— they wear the robes. That’s basically . . . a brand. It’s an impossible irony to avoid.

He revisits the swelling cognitive dissonance that led him to leave the advertising business:

The industrialized food system has changed the food for everybody in it. The problem is not necessarily McDonald’s or Burger King, or anyone in the food system. It’s the system itself that has subsidized the overfarming of corn and soy. Now corn and soy get cut up, sliced up, diced up, and turned into all sorts of different things. These kinds of transformations have also changed our beef system. So the beef that I ate as a kid isn’t anything like the beef that we eat now. As those realizations came to me, there was a values conflict. But that process only started about two years go. … As I looked at trying to bring the agency in line with where my values were moving, I couldn’t do it without firing two hundred to three hundred people. I didn’t feel that people should lose their jobs because my values had shifted and theirs hadn’t. That didn’t seem right. Particularly since I wasn’t 100 percent certain that I was correct. So I can’t say that I feel guilty.

You know what I feel guilty of? I feel guilty of not working harder to understand things earlier, when I could have.

[…]

Most of the decisions we made, we made with heart. The only things we screwed up were decisions where we only used our head.

Dori Tunstall

Design anthropologist Dori Tunstall, who has “the ability to make seemingly esoteric issues grittily relevant to the real-world endeavor of design and branding” and “can make connections between social theory and design, between religion and creativity,” sheds light on the crux of her relatively nascent discipline:

Design translates values into tangible experiences. Anthropology helps you understand those values and how the process of making things actually defines us as semi-uniquely human. Design research attempts to understand design and the design process in order to improve it.

When asked whether worship is one of the signifiers of what it means to be human and a centerpiece of our creative capacity, Tunstall reflects:

There’s been a lot written about the evolution of creativity. One hypothesis is that creativity comes from our need to make things special. And this relates to worship because worship allows us to identify things in order to make them special.

We know very little about the symbolic life of animals, but one of the most fascinating aspects of human beings is our great capabilities to create and interpret symbolism, as well as our ability to make abstractions concrete. In many ways, this is the genesis of creativity.

The notion of making things special and the identification of something as special or unique — and the relationship to that thing as special and unique — are the heart of worship and the heart of creativity itself.

Of the ritualization of buying, she notes:

We almost always used “things” as a way to identify ourselves and to identify others. Let’s start with the human body. In traditional cultures, the art of tattooing was about social coding. A certain number of tattoos meant you’ve been married. Another number of tattoos meant that you’ve had children. This many tattoos meant that you’ve killed a lion. Nowadays, we have a tremendous emphasis on dress and makeup and in our rituals of buying. I use the word “rituals” very specifically. But our rituals of consumption are no longer as satisfactory to us … because they are empty of human relationships. There was recently a wonderful study done on garage sales. When people go to a garage sale to buy something, they actually feel very satisfied about the interaction. Most of the time, it’s because the object they buy comes with a story—a very real, personal story about where the object fit into someone’s life. Whether it’s real or not, you connect with that person through the object. So when you take the object, your purchase of it is more satisfactory. Whereas right now, when you go now to a store, there seems to be a lot of emphasis on branding that tells authentic stories in order to … sell more stuff.

In addressing the issue of why we’ve ended up with 100 brands of bottled water, which Tunstall recognizes is unnecessary and an exploitation of illusion, she offers a historical context:

Culturally, this all goes back to the 1920s during the shift from commodities to branded commodities. The force of competition along with the force of mass services and mass products made branding necessary. Sugar didn’t need to be branded when only the most wealthy and elite of the French aristocracy could afford it. The brand of the king was more important than the brand of the sugar. But once sugar became cheap and accessible for everyone, those who wanted to profit from sugar needed to distinguish themselves from the guy down the street who also wanted to profit from it. The same goes for the plantation in Haiti versus the plantation in the Dominican Republic.

But Tunstall herself, who has served as managing director of Design for Democracy and organizer of the U.S. National Design Policy Initiative, inhabits the flip-side of this conception of design as a force of capitalism and unbridled consumption:

I’m trying to use design and design technologies to make values more tangible and apparent to people. Design is not all about mass consumption and unbridled capitalism.

Values like equality, democracy, fairness, integration, and connection are values that, to some extent, we’ve lost. Design can help make those values more tangible and ultimately express how we can use them to make the world a better place.

Malcolm Gladwell (Photograph: Brooke Williams)

Meanwhile, Malcolm Gladwell is more skeptical of the branding world and, specifically, the grab-bag nature of the term “branding” itself:

I have the same feeling toward the word “brand” as I do toward the word “Africa.” “Africa” is an incredibly problematic word for me. It’s a word used with great frequency to describe an intricately complex area made up of people, countries, and cultures that have no more in common than we do with Uzbekistan. But because it’s a convenient word, and a well-known word, and a geographically defined continent, we use that word to sum up and generalize everyone who lives within the continent. In a way, it really is unfair. But we’ve inherited that framework, and I think we’d be better off if we banned the word entirely. Getting back to “brand,” the word has similar implications. Yes, it’s of much smaller consequence — it’s a trivial example of the same problem, but it is a problem. The word gets thrown around so recklessly that I wonder whether we wouldn’t be better off setting it aside. Instead, if we could use more specific words that zero in on what we’re really interested in discussing, it would help the conversation.

When pushed to propose a better semantic framework, Gladwell takes branding apart and examines some of its key components:

I would start by trying to distinguish the different dimensions of “brand,” because there aren’t an infinite number of them. “Reputation,” for example, is a large component of “brand.” But very often, it’s the part of brand that you can do very little about. Reputation tends to be very stable. … [T]his can be very problematic, because you can quickly get into areas where you see that different organizations’ reputation scores don’t correlate well with more objective measures of their performance.

So what exactly is reputation if it’s not something that actually corresponds to how well an organization performs in the marketplace? We have the word “brand,” and a big chunk of it is this thing called reputation, and this thing called reputation is disconnected from notions of quality. This makes me think that I should treat reputation separately from the other elements of brand.

Much like the problem with the word “curation,” Gladwell resists the overuse and overapplication of the word “brand”:

The more broadly you use the word, the less useful it is as a way of distinguishing or describing complex phenomena. I object to its lack of precision.

On brands as uncomfortable pillars in the architecture of identity, Gladwell observes:

[T]he things people put on display inevitably generate a kind of inertia. In a world where we now have extraordinarily efficient ways of communicating and displaying, the question of who you are becomes incredibly complicated.

I think that brands are a part of this. When you surround yourself with certain kinds of objects, they become a public statement about who you are. There are hundreds of choices that are necessary to fill out your life with objects and things, and I think that requires an inner logic as well.

Maybe the modern version of introspection is the sum total of all those highly individualized choices that we make about the material content of our lives.

Above all, Gladwell argues, branding has shifted our relationship with products and services from one of utilitarian and passive consumption to one of political, highly engaged civic participation:

[O]ur material choices as consumers are no longer trivial. They are now amongst the most important choices we make. They have consequences well beyond our own selves — they have global consequences. They have consequences on our economy, on the community we live in. When you eat a McDonald’s hamburger, you are casting a vote for a certain kind of agricultural system, and for a certain kind of climate. In a sense, everything we do casts a vote for a certain kind of world. And this isn’t true in the same way it was one hundred years ago, or if it was, we weren’t aware of it. We weren’t forced to make that connection because our world wasn’t being driven on this macro level by the sum total of consumer choices — at least not in the same way. So it makes perfect sense that when you decide what car you’re going to buy, you think long and hard about the choice, and when you drive a Nissan Leaf, or a Chevy Volt, you’re saying to the world, “These are my values. This is the kind of world I want.”

Like Buckminster Fuller, who has argued against specialization and philosopher Roman Krznaric, who believes the cult of specialization ushered in by the Industrial Revolution is holding us back from finding fulfilling work, Gladwell ends on a note of admonition against the compartmentalization and labeling that confine our ever-shifting, multifaceted personalities:

At a certain point this takes us further away from meaningful human interaction, not closer. I have the same reaction to that as I have to people who take the Myers-Briggs test, and then declare to the world that they’re an “INTJ.” It’s not useful or helpful to define oneself according to this crackpot, incredibly narrow, restrictive personality typing system, and then tell the world, “This is who I am.” No. It’s not who you are. Human beings can’t be reduced to four letters. Fast-food franchises can be reduced to four letters because they’re selling the same burger over and over again, in the same context, and in the same kind of building, according to the same kind of rules.

[…]

I think that we should be fighting pigeonholing, not enabling it.

An indispensable introspection tool for modern life, Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits takes our relationship with the material world — a relationship that is at once inevitable and brimming with ambivalence — off of autopilot, inviting us into the driver’s seat of consumer culture and strapping us in with a very, very well-designed seatbelt. Complement it with a free subscription to the fantastic Design Matters on iTunes or SoundCloud.

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